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Students use a sweater box and fish gravel to simulate the effects of a tsunami on a beach. They see how a tsunami moves across the ocean and what happens when it reaches the continental shelf. Students make villages of model houses and buildings to test how different material types are impacted by the huge waves They are given a limited amount of time and materials to build their structures, then they test them! The students generate waves by using plexiglass as a wave generator, until there is only one remaining structure. They further discuss how engineers design buildings to survive tsunamis.This activity was done in Mrs. Snail's 6th grade earth science classroom (20 -30 students). This activity is adopted from the Tsunami experiment from The NEES EOT team made a few adaptations to make it appropriate for a 6th grade classroom.This inexpensive activity should give students insight to what earthquake engineering is and why it is important!


Earthquake engineering is one of the few engineering disciplines that is not known to many people outside of the field. We strive to educate and inform teachers, educators, and students, about this field via summer camps, workshops, our Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, fairs, and classroom visits. In this specific activity, middle school students who are currently taking an earth science class will learn about earthquake engineering by building a structure and testing it by simulating a tsunami!

Earthquake Engineering Component

Links to the National Science Standards and to individual State Science Standards are available by using this link:

No one can stop tsunamis from forming since we cannot prevent earthquakes, volcanoes and landslides, but we can devise ways to minimize the impact of these killer waves on human communities. Engineers design and install seismographs, tide gauges, ocean floor pressure sensors and loud sirens. Engineers also design buildings using materials and shapes that are more likely to survive a tsunami. Between high-tech detection systems and smart structures, the impact of a tsunami strike can be lessened dramatically. But, in many areas, dense populations, unreliable local communication, and poor or nonexistent roads remain the biggest obstacles to quick evacuation to safety. ---

Learning Objectives and Standards

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain what causes tsunamis, including movement under the surface of the ocean.
  • Understand why they were given a limit on time and supplies, and how this relates to being an engineer
  • Explain the importance of testing and redesigning their structure
  • Have a better understanding of what earthquake engineering is
  • Discuss methods used to mitigate damage pre and post disaster
  • Describe how engineers cannot prevent tsunamis, but they can design and build buildings so that they are more resistant to tsunamis.

Material List

  • Scissors
  • graph paper, tissue paper, and cardstock (or manilla envelope paper)
  • toothpicks
  • tape
  • half pint milk cartons
  • large towels to clean displaced water


This procedure is modified from the lesson that is originally tailored for 3rd - 5th grade students. There are Powerpoint slides attached to this lesson that was used for this activity.

Pre Assessment

Below is a list of questions I asked students before I started the demo and powerpoint

  • Who knows someone in their family that is an engineer?
    • What is their job and where do they work?
    • What type of engineer are they?
  • What is an engineer?
    • Can someone name different types engineers?
    • What about earthquake engineering?
    • What do you think an earthquake engineer is?

View the powerpoint presentation, then start the lesson. This activity assumes a team size of about 5 - 6 students. Split students into three teams.


Tsunami generator, view from above. Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

Tsunami generator, a side view. Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  1. Prepare a sweater box by using fish gravel to serve as the sand
    1. To generate the wave, plexi-glass or sheet metal works well.
    2. Make sure that the plexi-glass is about the width of the inside of the sweaterbox
    3. Wave can be generated by duct taping the plexi-glass down to the sweaterbox, creating a flap, moving the flap up and down, or,
    4. moving the plexi-glass back and forth along the length of the sweaterbox
  2. Use enough fish gravel so that the coast is about half the height of the sweaterbox
  3. Fill water until it is about the same level as the fish gravel
  4. Split the students into three teams
  5. Each team should have a different set of supplies:
  • TEAM 1
    • scissors
    • graph paper
    • tape
    • 20 toothpicks
    • 4 milk cartons
  • TEAM 2
    • 2 milk cartons
    • cardstock
    • tape
    • scissors
  • TEAM 3
    • tissue paper
    • tape
    • scissors
    • 20 toothpicks

Building and Testing

  1. Each person of each team will have to construct a structure out of the supplies given to them
  2. Students will have 10 min to build their structure
  3. After building is done, 1 student from each team will place their structure on the fish gravel
  4. The teacher can generate the wave until the last structure is standing
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until all students of each team have tested their structure
  6. Once all students have tested their structure, repeat steps 3 and 4 again but only testing students who won the rounds.

Post Assessment Questions

After this activity is completed, we asked some students about what they learned. If time permits. The teacher can give the student to option of allowing them to redesign their structure and restest. Below are some of the questions we asked the activity was over:

  1. Why was each team given a different set of supplies?
  2. What did you observe?
  3. Why was there a limit on time?
  4. Why do you think your structure failed?
  5. If you could fix your structure, what would you do differently?
  6. Was there enough supplies to share among your teammates? Why? Why not?

Links and Resources

Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Tenille Denise Medley; NEES EOT (2011), "Tsunami in a Sweater Box,"

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